Rumour spreadin a-round in that Texas town
bout that shack outside La Grange
And you know what I’m talkin’ about.
Just let me know if you wanna go
To that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls.
– ZZ Top, “La Grange,” 1973
LA GRANGE, Texas — It’s perhaps unfortunate that a town’s best known claim to fame is that it was the site of a notorious house of ill repute. The local chamber of commerce might dispute that assessment, but that’s the case with La Grange, known from TV, stage and film as the longtime home of the Chicken Ranch, “the best little whorehouse in Texas.”
La Grange, a town of nearly 5,000 souls on the Colorado River southeast of Austin, was our nighttime refuge from the rain on Monday as our transcontinental bicycle caravan traveled toward the East Texas Piney Woods and a crossing of the Sabine River into Louisiana.
The town’s history as a place to have a good time predates the Civil War. In 1844, a widow known as Mrs. Swine opened a brothel in a hotel near a saloon featuring three young women from New Orleans. But it closed during the war after Mrs. Swine and one of her prostitutes were accused of being traitorous Yankees and forced to leave town.
In 1905, Jessie Williams, known as “Miss Jessie,” continued the tradition started by Mrs. Swine when she opened a small brothel at La Grange along the Colorado River. But fearing a crusade against the red-light district by local church people, Miss Jessie bought 10 acres of land outside the city limits, close to the main road to Houston and Galveston.
Her new establishment looked like a typical Texas farmhouse with white siding and a few side buildings that housed chickens. For decades, the “Chicken Ranch” flourished as an illegal but tolerated brothel. It was frequented by local law officers, politicians, soldiers and airmen from Texas military bases and students from Texas A&M University at College Station.
Miss Jessie died in 1961, and one of her employees, Edna Milton, bought the property and named it “Edna’s Fashionable Ranch Boarding House.” Milton, like Miss Jessie, enforced strict rules for her prostitutes and customers. At its peak in the 1960s, the ranch reportedly earned more than $500,000 per year and Edna Milton became one of La Grange’s biggest philanthropists.
But then in 1973 along came one of Texas’ more colorful characters: Marvin Zindler, a flamboyant Houston television reporter who formerly had been a disc jockey and head of the Consumer Fraud Division with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston before he joined ABC station KTRK/Channel 13 at age 51. In his first year on the air, he took on the Chicken Ranch and succeeded in getting it closed.
The ensuing brouhaha spawned a story in Playboy magazine, a 1978 Broadway musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, based on a story by Texas playwright Larry L. King, a 1982 movie of the same name starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds and a song by ZZ Top called “La Grange.”
Zindler, known for his on-air antics, platinum wig and blue glasses, delivered his last report — about roaches, rodents and slime in the ice machines of Houston restaurants — from his hospital bed on July 20, 2007. He died of pancreatic cancer nine days later at age 85.